Sunday 27 February 2011

Trip up to Meroe with Mark

This weekend was the first chance for Mark Mallalieu and I to head out on a proper birding trip into the desert north of Khartoum. We were a bit short of options, so decided to head up to Meroe, stopping at Sabaloga (the sixth cataract) on the way, with minor stops at anywhere interesting on route. About half an hour or so north of Khartoum we started picking up our first good birds. A Hoopoe Lark flew over the road and landed to give us great views - a new bird for me. We saw the first of many flocks of Greater Short-toed Lark that seemed to be heading north. Shortly after, a small group of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse flew over the road and landed. We pulled over and were able to get good views before noticing that there were many others already present. This was a new species for us both. A little further north at Khartoum Oil Refinery a couple of Speckled Pigeons flew over the road. These were my first sightings in Sudan and are slightly further north than any records shown in Nikolaus.

 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, North of Khartoum, 25th February 2011

From here we could see the big Jebel (according to the map it seems to be called Quannazir) past which the Nile flows over the sixth cataract at Sabaluka. The problem was that we had no idea how to reach Sabaluka and had only done research based on Google Earth. A brand new road with tarmac headed off towards the Jebel and we followed it up into an interesting looking valley. However, we were soon stopped at a barrier by some suspicious looking guards and sent back the other way. It seemed that we were approaching the Jebel from the wrong side, so we returned to the main road and proceded north. It was soon evident where the turn off was, because there were boys standing at the side of the road waving at people to offer their services as guides. We agreed a price of 10SDG with a lad called Wan Ali and headed towards Sabaluka, which it was now evident was approached from the northern end of the jebel. As soon as we reached the rocks at the edge of the jebel we saw a fabulous male Red-tailed Wheatear - a new bird for us both. As we continued on towards the Nile we saw some other good birds including Tawny Pipit and Desert Lark, both new for us in Sudan.

Red-tailed Wheatear, Sabaluka, 25th February 2011

Tawny Pipit, Sabaluka, 25th February 2011

Closer to the Nile we had our first taste of some of the hassles that the guidebooks had warned us about. They are keen to get your business and will work hard to get you to part with your money. One boy aged about 10 stood in front of the car trying to urge us to pull over and use a particular parking bay. He refused to budge and for several minutes stood their with his arms stretched out trying to make us give in. Eventually he moved (after lots of beeping and revving) and we continued on to the land owned by Wan Ali's father. Again there was the haggling for boat costs, car-watching costs, extra guides (several wanted to come with us) etc. Eventually we agreed to pay 20SDG and we then left to go up into the hills. We only stayed for a short walk and looped back along the edge of the Nile. It is a gorge with only a narrow strip of vegetation and we thought it might be a good place for concentrating migrants. There were lots of Lesser Whitethroats around but not many other migrants this early in year. Residents included Blackstarts and Striolated Buntings and Crag Martins, plus species you would expect in Khartoum such as Nile Valley Sunbirds, Siberian Stonechat, Rufous Scrub Robin, and Sudan Golden Sparrows.  We were interupted by a couple of large groups of Common Cranes circling overhead. We found a patch of flight feathers on the rocks that appeared to be a raptor kill. It was hard to pin them down to a species, but we think they may well have been from an Egyptian Nightjar. Mark kept a few and may be able to identify them later.

Blackstart, Sabaluka, 25th February 2011

Nile Valley Sunbird, Sabaluka, 25th February 2011

We didn't stay long and headed north towards Meroe, where we were staying at the Italian Camp. Its not cheap, costing the equivalent of about $240 for two in a tent with dinner and breakfast, but it was a very nice place to stay, the food was good and we both felt it was worth the money. On the road up to Meroe we found a family group of Brown-necked Ravens that were still hanging around a nest in a large metal electric pylon. One thing that struck us was the pale yellowish colour of the legs of these birds. This is not shown in the books.
Brown-necked Raven, South of Meroe, 25th February 2011

On arrival we were presented with great views of a Desert Lark feeding its young around the wheels of our car. We also saw that there were Trumpeter Finches flying around the camp.

 Desert Lark, Meroe, 25th February 2011

Trumpeter Finches, Meroe, 25th February 2011

That evening we went out for a couple of hours birding and soon caught up with some Sylvia warblers. As expected, there were a few Lesser Whitethroats but we also found an Eastern Orphean Warbler and a Menetries Warbler (our first ever). We spent a lot of time tracking each one as they flew from bush to bush and disappeared into the foliage. Eventually, by building up notes from brief views and by taking poor quality photos, we were able to identify them both. More obliging was a nice male Ruppell's Warbler. Another good bird here was a fly-over Egyptian Vulture. At night we tried driving around to look for the eye-shine of nightjars, but without success.

Ruppell's Warbler, Meroe, 25th February 2011

Egyptian Vulture, Meroe, 25th February 2011

The following morning we headed over to the south side of the pyramids (the Italian Camp is on the north side). Our main goal was the Desert Sparrows that I had seen on my previous visit. On the drive over we saw a fox returning from its night prowl. Once at the site we quickly found the sparrows right beside the bush where I had seen them nest-building in November. We also found a couple of Desert Warblers - a species not previously reported from this part of Sudan - and a few other species (including a couple of Hoopoe Larks). We then came across a group of 3 unfamiliar larks. Neither of us is very up on lark identification and we didn't have field guides with us, but by elimination we decided they must be Dunn's Larks. We stalked them for a while taking detailed descriptions plus many photos that we thought had confirmed our first thoughts and when I first posted this trip report I discussed how happy we were to have found some Dunn's Larks. On a later trip I photographed a group of similar birds with male Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks. This raised my suspicions and I decided to check with Birdforum, where  our error soon became apparent (Birdforum link).

Desert Sparrow, Meroe, 25th February 2011

 Desert Warbler, Meroe, 25th February 2011

Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Meroe, 25th February 2011

We felt that we had seen all we deserved, but we still made a couple more unscheduled stops on the way back whenever we saw a slightly different habitat. One area with slightly denser bushes produced a couple of Cricket Warblers (Marks first and one of our target birds for the trip). Another area was very flat and open with a pale wash of thinly distributed green grass. We pulled up at a random spot, but quickly saw several larks including a male Black-crowned Finch Lark and our best views of Hoopoe Lark and Greater Short-toed Lark.

Hoopoe Lark, 115km south of Meroe, 25th February 2011

Greater Short-toed Lark, 115km south of Meroe, 25th February 2011

We were very pleased with what we saw and it confirmed our thoughts that there are lots of good birds out in the desert if you can get the chance to explore a bit. Six species of lark and five species of Sylvia warbler were particularly noteworthy. I look forward to our next trip.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Cyprus Wheatear at last

I was down by the Blue Nile again at the weekend for a family picnic. I wasn't really birding, but of course I had my optics with me just in case. Best bird was a Cyprus Wheatear. My friend Juha had seen one several times a couple of km further up river back in the autumn and another the previous winter. I had tried in vain to see the autumn bird, so it was a species that was high on my hit list. Until recently they were considered to be a distinct subspecies of Pied Wheatear, but research has shown them to be a distinct species. Breeding only occurs on the island of Cyprus and the wintering grounds are still poorly known. For example, Birds of the Horn of Africa includes the species but comments that there are still no accepted records. Evidently they move through Sudan along the Nile and presumably they are wintering further south in Sudan.

Cyprus Wheatear, Blue Nile Khartoum 18th February 2011

A Desert Wheatear was also around and seemed to be the same individual that I had watched back in December. It was hanging around in the same spot as if it had formed a winter territory. The Cyprus Wheatear had not been around then.

Desert Wheatear, Blue Nile Khartoum 18th February 2011

Back in the autumn I had seen Pallid Swifts on one solo visit to Tuti Island and on one visit with Juha. In a previous blog I mentioned that Nikolaus had described them as rare anywhere other than Jebel Marra. A sighting of a couple more birds today suggests that they are really quite regular around Khartoum and have probably been under recorded. I am thinking that this is probably the case with most swifts in the country. I saw a couple of Little swifts at Tuti earlier in the year with Mark Mallalieu, while Juha and I saw a group of about 50. Juha also saw a White-rumped Swift beside the Blue Nile just south of Khartoum. Neither species had been recorded within several hundred km of Khartoum before. A lot of ornithological fieldwork is conducted using mist-nets, which tend not to catch swifts. Swifts can also be hard to identify if you don't get decent photos. I can only assume that the group as a whole has been greatly under-recorded for these reasons. I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for swifts in the future. Oddly enough, I have yet to see a Common Swift.

Pallid Swift, Blue Nile Khartoum 18th February 2011

Sunday 20 February 2011

East of Juba

Yesterday I drove across the White Nile bridge 7 kms east of Juba along the Nimule road. The elevation here is slightly higher than the road north and the country is punctuated by rocky outcrops. There's no water anywhere.

Rejaf county, East of Juba

I was trying to photograph birds that I'd seen here before, especially Foxy Cisticola. They are smart little birds.

Foxy Cisticola

I'd also seen flycatchers here before and was able to determine that they are African Grey Flycatchers.

African Grey Flycatcher

I've been trying to get a decent photo of Black-headed Gonolek and today's was the best so far.

Black-headed Gonolek

However.......I have been wondering why small birds are so flighty here. The picture below maybe explains this.


Several other new species today, not all photographed, included Brown-rumped Bunting, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, White-browed Scrub-Robin and what I believe is a Sun Lark.

White-browed Scrub-Robin

Putative Sun Lark

Saturday 12 February 2011

Steppe Eagles on the move

Another morning outing north of Juba today revealed that, since last week, Steppe Eagles Aquila nipalensis have started to cross the area en route back to Suez and then on to their breeding grounds in central Asia. A colleague, Simon Narbeth, my sharp-eyed driver Bosco, and I travelled 15 kms north of Juba, encountering about 50 Steppe Eagles, mostly moving in a leisurely manner north-westwards. Oddly, they were not travelling due north or east of north, suggesting that the light westerly wind might be affecting the flight direction. There was a mix of age groups, as shown by the photos below. Without my trusty Forsmann raptor i.d. guide, which is back in UK, I'll not attempt to precisely age these birds.

Steppe Eagles

The main passage through Suez is from late February to mid-March, which suggests that these birds are in no rush to head north.

I originally posted the photo below as a Steppe Eagle, but it is in fact a Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax. The wings appear narrower, the flight feathers are unbarred, the head more protruding and the first primary very short.

Tawny Eagle

Other birds of prey included a pair of Dark Chanting-Goshawks Melierax metabates, which saw off a Steppe Eagle that invaded their territory, and two African White-backed Vultures Gyps africanus.

Dark Chanting-Goshawk

African White-backed Vulture

There was also a pale phase Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus, providing an interesting comparison with the pale phase Wahlberg's Eagle Aquila wahlbergi seen last weekend (the Wahlberg's was somewhat larger, which is not obvious from the two pictures below).

Pale phase Booted Eagle

Pale phase Wahlberg's Eagle

Among several new species for me in the Juba area was White-billed Buffalo-Weaver Bubalornis albirostris - a flock of about 30 in open bushland with acacias. The bill colour is grey rather than white, at least at this time of year.

White-billed Buffalo-Weaver

Last one for today: I've seen Spotted Morning-Thrush Cichladusa guttata around Juba before, and today managed to obtain a few photos.

Spotted Morning-Thrush

Saturday 5 February 2011

My first winter trip to Tuti Island

Today was my first visit to Tuti Island since the end of October, so my first chance to see what is around when there is no migration. I saw three species that I had not seen before in Sudan: a Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a couple of Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus and a couple of African Spoonbills that flew over (one in breeding plumage showing the distinctive pink legs). I have seen a few Stonechats at various locations since my last Tuti visit, but the half dozen or so that I saw today were my first on the island. The extensive orange on the underparts of the males indicated that they were all the European subspecies, rather than the Siberian form that is also know to occur here (and which is often treated as a separate species).

Stonechat, 5th February, Tuti Island

With fewer migrants to worry about, I had more time to look at some of the resident species and I was able to photograph a few that have not posed for me before. This is partly because I don't like to carry a camera with me through the more occupied areas, so I usually only get it out when I reach the northern end of the island where there are fewer people and where they are a bit more familiar with me by now.

Red-billed Hornbill, 5th February, Tuti Island

Masked Shrike, 5th February, Tuti Island

Sudan Golden Sparrow, 5th February, Tuti Island

I hadn't expected to see weavers nest building, but I suppose that in this climate they could breed at any time. Most are now in their non-breeding plumage, so presumably they adopt the breeding plumage for courtship and then lose it to allow them to get though the rest of the breeding season without attracting predators.  The fieldguides don't say anything about moult and nesting strategies, so I will have to do some research to find out a bit more about this.

Vitelline Masked Weaver building a nest, 5th February, Tuti Island

North of Juba

This morning I spent four hours birding along 15 kms of the road north from Juba. Much of the land is flooded in the rains, but now it's parched. Despite this, birds are plentiful.

Landscape 15kms north of Juba - nests are of White-browed Sparrow-Weavers Plocepasser mahali

White-browed Sparrow-Weavers

Among the first birds seen are Grey-backed Fiscals Lanius excubitoroides and Rueppell's Long-tailed Starlings Lamprotornis purpuropterus.

Rueppell's Long-tailed Starling with Grey-backed Fiscals

There are a few flooded borrow pits, which attract hordes of small birds such as weavers ploceus sp., Black-rumped Waxbills Estrilda troglodytes and Red-billed Firefinches Lagonosticta senegala.

Black-rumped Waxbills

The weavers are not in breeding plumage, but seem to include Northern and Lesser Masked P. taeniopterus and P. intermedius, as well as Black-headed and/or Vitelline Masked P. cucullatus and P. velatus.

A confusion of weavers

There are lots of doves, including Namaqua Doves Oena capensis, as well as Vinaceous Doves Streptopelia vinacea.

Vinaceous Dove

On one of the flooded pits were a flock of African Wattled Lapwings Vanellus senegallus, Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus and African Open-billed Storks Anastomus lamelligerus.

Sacred Ibis with African Open-billed Storks

African Wattled Lapwing

I'll finish this post with a few raptors. First a pair of Wahlberg's Eagles Aquila wahlbergi, including a stunning pale phase bird.

Pale phase Wahlberg's Eagle

The other bird of the pair

Next some blurry vultures (sorry, they were miles up)....

White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis

Rueppell's Griffon Vulture Gyps rueppellii

And last, a Black-chested Snake-Eagle Circaetus pectoralis.

Black-chested Snake-Eagle